Nash UNC Health Care officials took new steps this week to protect staff members and patients as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the area and in the hospital.
In a previous statement, hospital officials said they had been “very fortunate to have a small percentage of our staff test positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.”
However, hospital officials said this week that the trend changed after Labor Day and the percentage of staff members testing positive has more than doubled in recent weeks.
“Through Aug. 31, our percent of positive staff members was 2.6 percent. In September, coinciding with the rise of COVID diagnoses in the community and the number of COVID patients in the hospital, we saw our staff percentage increase to 5.5 percent, representing the cumulative total of positive staff members since March. Fortunately, our COVID census is decreasing and we believe we are seeing our staff rate steadying,” said Dorsey Tobias, executive director of marketing, communications and strategy.
Since then, the Nash UNC COVID-19 Task Force has been evaluating and working through new approaches to dealing with the issue, she said. As a result, Nash UNC Health Care implemented new polices that took effect Thursday, including expansion of COVID testing.
“We will now be testing all patients who are admitted to the hospital,” Tobias said. “Due to our partnership with UNC Health, we are able to tap into additional testing resources. We had already been testing all outpatients prior to procedures such as colonoscopies. With increased testing supply, we are now able to test all admissions whereas we had previously only been able to test those meeting symptomatic criteria. This new measure will help us know more about our in-house patients and guide their next steps when ready for discharge.”
Because of the additional testing resources, the hospital also will be able to test asymptomatic staff members who wish to be tested. In the past, only staff members who had COVID symptoms or had high-risk exposure to COVID-19 were tested.
These new measures are the result of digging into reasons for the increase in COVID-19 among hospital staff, which tends to point to community spread rather than the treatment of known COVID patients.
“In observing this rise in staff cases in September, our interdisciplinary task force, made up of staff and medical staff who have been meeting multiple times a week to guide our efforts over the last seven months, quickly conducted root cause analyses and developed action plans to address the situation,” Tobias said. “The COVID units have not proven to be a root cause in our staff cases.”
In July, Nash UNC Health Care opened a designated COVID unit that specifically is designed and equipped to treat 32 non-critical COVID patients in individually pressurized rooms. The hospital has 76 total negative pressure rooms that can be utilized if needed to manage COVID patients under the proper protocols, Tobias said.
The focus of recent changes has been on increasing and enforcing protocols designed to protect staff members from exposing themselves or others to COVID-19 as much as possible.
“We doubled down on our staff education and began to enforce occupancy guidelines and spacing in all break rooms,” Tobias said. “We continue to educate our staff on the importance of personal protective equipment and maintaining social distance, both at work and outside of work.”
Staff members also are reminded to self-monitor for symptoms and to contact Occupational Health for instructions on testing and quarantine if they suspect they have symptoms or exposure to COVID. Before every staff member starts their shift, they also participate in a screening process upon entry to the facility.
More attention also is being paid to personal protective equipment.
“It has not been uncommon for asymptomatic patients to test positive, which is why everyone in our facilities are required to wear masks and proper PPE,” Tobias said. “We enhanced our policy on eye protection to be worn by all staff members throughout a clinical unit. Our policy since June had required eye protection in patient-facing activities, so this policy expanded that.”
Visitors to the hospital also are required to wear appropriate PPE.
“We improved education for visitors on the importance of wearing PPE throughout their visit and are applying more rigor around enforcing those guidelines with all visitors throughout their visit,” Tobias said.
Cleanliness of hospital facilities remains a top priority, she said. All clinical areas, patient rooms, break rooms, offices and common areas continue to be rigorously cleaned per CDC guidelines, with additional measures such as UV light treatment for areas that have been exposed to COVID, Tobias said.
With all the stress placed on staff members during the pandemic, Nash UNC Health Care also is working to ease their burdens a little, Tobias said.
“We introduced COVID PTO in September — providing 80 hours of paid time off for any staff member who contracts COVID-19,” Tobias said.
The hospital also held a celebration of sorts for staff members at the end of September to mark six months since hospital operations changed because of the pandemic.
“Our ‘Care for the Caregiver’ events included gifts and treats for all staff throughout the month, fun virtual games with prizes and a socially distanced shift change celebration on Sept. 30 to mark six months from our first COVID discharge,” Tobias said.
As the pandemic progresses, the hospital plans to continue to monitor data and make changes to policies and procedures as needed.
“Our Nash UNC COVID-19 Task Force continues to meet twice a week, guiding our response to COVID, including continuous updates and enhancements to our processes and environmental safety measures,” Tobias said. “We continue to work with UNC Health, local and state health departments and the CDC to update our policies, processes and guidelines based on the latest recommendations to ensure the safety of our patients, staff, visitors and community.”